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03-13-2024

How sleep patterns affect your health over time

Many people sacrifice sleep in our fast-paced world, filled with late-night screen time and unfinished tasks. A new study by Professor Soomi Lee from Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development explores the connection between sleep patterns and long-term health.

The research sheds light on how our sleep patterns, both good and bad, affect our well-being in the long run.

Types of sleep patterns

Lee and her team studied the sleep patterns of 3,700 adults over ten years. The researchers identified four main sleep styles:

  • Good sleepers: Get enough sleep, feel well-rested during the night, and have high energy levels throughout the day.
  • Weekend catch-up sleepers: Don’t get enough sleep during the week but make up for it by sleeping longer on weekends, indicating irregular sleep patterns.
  • Insomnia sleepers: Have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, leading to tired days and a constant struggle for restful sleep.
  • Nappers: Sleep well at night but also take naps during the day.

Long term health and sleep patterns

The study found that more than half of the participants had either insomnia or napped frequently. The participants are linked to a higher risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and depression. There are several key ways sleep affects our health:

Repair and restoration

While we sleep, our body repairs and restores itself. This includes healing and repair of the heart and blood vessels, which is essential for preventing heart disease. If we don’t get enough sleep, these processes are disrupted, potentially leading to cardiovascular problems.

Metabolic health

Sleep affects how our body regulates blood sugar which influence our risk of diabetes. When sleep is insufficient or disrupted, it can affect how our body processes sugar, leading to insulin resistance.

Hormonal balance

Sleep helps regulate hormones that control appetite, stress, and growth. If our sleep patterns are disrupted, it can lead to hormonal imbalances. This can contribute to weight gain, increased stress levels, and other factors that make us develop chronic conditions.

Immune function

Getting enough sleep is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system. During sleep, our body produces proteins called cytokines that help us fight infection, inflammation, and stress. If we have insomnia or fragmented sleep, our immune system can weaken, making us more susceptible to infections and diseases.

Mental health

Sleep has a significant impact on our mental well-being. It helps regulate our mood and is linked to the risk of depression. People with insomnia and poor sleep quality often experience symptoms of depression.

Sleep patterns over the decade

Unfortunately, once people get used to sleeping a certain way, it’s hard to change. The experts found that people’s sleep patterns were surprisingly stable over ten years. Especially for people with insomnia or who napped a lot, changing their sleep habits was very difficult.

“These results may suggest that it is very difficult to change our sleep habits because sleep health is embedded into our overall lifestyle. It may also suggest that people still don’t know about the importance of their sleep and about sleep health behaviors,” Lee said.

“We need to make more efforts to educate the public about good sleep health. There are sleep hygiene behaviors that people could do to improve their sleep, such as not using cell phones in bed, exercising regularly and avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon.”

Daily influences on sleep patterns

The study also showed a bigger connection between sleep patterns and our lives in general. They found that sleep differed depending on life stages, economic conditions, and education levels.

For example, older adults and people who were retired often napped during the day. On the other hand, people who were unemployed or had less education were more likely to have trouble sleeping. This implies that our sleep pattern is majorly affected by the world around us.

Significance of the study

The study was supported by a team of researchers from prestigious institutions and funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging. It challenges us to consider the profound impact that sleep has on our lives, health, and well-being.

“Sleep is an everyday behavior,” Lee noted. “Sleep is also modifiable, So, if we can improve sleep almost every day, what outcomes might we see after several months, or even several years?”

“Better sleeping habits can make many significant differences, from improving social relationships and work performance to promoting long-term healthy behaviors and healthy aging.”

The study is published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

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